Unintended Strategic Consequences of Security Assistance in the South Caucasus

By Mihalka, Michael D.; Wilcox, Mark R. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Unintended Strategic Consequences of Security Assistance in the South Caucasus


Mihalka, Michael D., Wilcox, Mark R., Joint Force Quarterly


While Georgia may be more prosperous than it was before the Rose Revolution of 2003, it is no stronger or more democratic. Georgia was never really the "beacon of liberty" that President George W. Bush called it in 2005. (2) In fact, even though the South Caucasus as a whole saw substantial economic growth in the 1990s, none of the countries therein saw any movement toward greater liberal democracy. Moreover, civilmilitary relations have deteriorated, and the risks of internal and external violence have arguably increased. Given these trends, has the large increase in security assistance to the South Caucasus actually decreased regional stability? The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 suggests that it has.

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This article examines the trends in liberal democracy in the South Caucasus in light of economic development. It relates these trends to regional changes in civil-military relations and the prospects for violence in the region. It then assesses the extent to which security assistance has contributed to stability in the region. Finally, recommendations are made about how future security assistance should be structured.

Economic Development

Economic development consistently correlates with liberal democracy, although some scholars question whether there is a causal relation. A recent survey article concludes that "[s]trong evidence supports the claims that democracy is more likely in more developed countries and that regime transitions of all kinds are more likely during economic downturns. Very few of the other arguments advanced in the transitions literature, however, appear to be generally true." (3) Another scholar asserts that economic development does not cause democracy but rather the same factors that lead to democracy also help the economy. (4) Thus, liberal democracy in the South Caucasus should have been on the ascent in the decade prior to the global economic crisis in 2008. All the countries in the region saw substantial economic growth during that decade. Growth rates from 2000 to 2007 were between 5 and 10 percent for Georgia, 10 and 15 percent for Armenia, and 10 and 35 percent for Azerbaijan. (5)

Despite theoretical predictions, there has been no increase in liberal democracy in the region, but rather a decline, as seen in figure 1 (lower scores represent more "democracy"). Moreover, although many political figures have touted the democratic advance for President Mikhail Saakashvili's regime, the democratic situation has deteriorated. Freedom House in its Nations in Transit project scores Georgia at 4.17 in 1999 but at 4.93 in 2009 on a scale of 1 to 7. (6) That score is a composite of several factors including electoral process, civil society, independent media, national and local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. Although there is a relatively thriving civil society in Georgia, there are few checks on executive authority. As noted by Nations in Transit, "[d]ue to the absence of any real constraints on the president, the authorities' reluctance to engage in dialogue with the opposition, and unanswered questions concerning the August war with Russia, the rating for national democratic governance worsens from 5.75 to 6.00." (7)

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There are several possible explanations for the failure of democracy in the South Caucasus, but three seem compelling: the nature of economic growth, the corrosive effect of unresolved conflicts, and the unfortunate geopolitical position of the region from the point of view of democracy.

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"Oil Curse"

In the introductory essay to the Nations in Transit 2008 report, the authors link the rising price of oil to the decline of democracy in the former Soviet Union. (8) They note that the "model of pursuing economic growth while eroding the independence of critical institutions has been adopted by three oil-rich states in the former Soviet Union: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. …

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